Serving 25 years for a crime that never happened

The US media seems to regularly go through periods of hysteria when one particular crime grabs their imagination and suddenly they see widespread evidence of it everywhere. There have been many notorious cases where innocent people were wrongfully prosecuted and convicted for crimes committed by others. But what is even worse is doing so when there was no crime in the first place. This was the case during the period that some of you may remember from a few decades ago when it seemed like there was an epidemic of cases involving children’s day care centers that seemed to be hotbeds of all manner of abuse. It seemed like we saw a parade of day care providers being hauled off in handcuffs and sent to prison.

Many of the accusations of abuse were so horrific and involved the collusion by many adults to commit and hide the acts that they strained credulity. Many of the cases involved the testimony provided by very young children and it seemed plausible to many that children would have no reason to lie. It later emerged that in some cases, over-zealous prosecutors and psychologists were inducing false memories in the children.

Jordan Smith writes about one couple’s case that she investigated who were exonerated 25 years after being convicted.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after they were convicted of a crime that never happened, Fran and Dan Keller were formally exonerated on June 20 in Austin, Texas.

The couple’s prosecution in 1992 was part of a wave of cases across the country amid an episode of mass hysteria known as the Satanic Panic. Beginning in the 1980s, accusations flew that the childcare industry had been infiltrated by bands of Satanists hell-bent on brainwashing and sexually abusing young children.

Fran and Dan Keller were each sentenced to 48 years in prison for the alleged sexual assault of a 3-year-old girl who was an occasional drop-in at their home daycare center on the rural outskirts of Austin. The child initially accused Dan of spanking her “like daddy” used to, but under intense and repeated questioning by her mother and a therapist, the story morphed to include claims of rape and orgies involving children. From there, the number of children alleging abuse increased and the accusations grew even more lurid and confounding: The Kellers had sacrificed babies; they held ceremonies in a local graveyard; they put blood in the children’s Kool-Aid; Fran cut off the arm of a gorilla in a local park; they flew the children to Mexico to be sexually assaulted by military officials.

Smith recounts how her reinvestigation of the case led to the exoneration and how the Austin police department refused to release the investigative report on the case until they were taken to court and ordered to do so.

After reading the report, it was not hard to understand why the department had fought to keep it secret. It was an ALL-CAPS, run-on-sentence fever dream full of breathless accusations and absent any actual investigation that could prove or disprove the claims. On multiple occasions, the lead investigator took the girl who accused the Kellers to lunch at McDonald’s before setting out for drives in the neighborhood where she would point out locations: Yes, she had been abused there; yes, she recognized the cemetery where the Kellers had killed and buried babies; yes, many of the residents of the quiet neighborhood were in on the hi-jinx. Not once did investigators question the child’s statements.

Unless you lived through that period, it is hard to describe the mass hysteria that seemed to sweep over the nation about the widespread abuse of children by day care providers. As a result, there was huge pressure on police and prosecutors to take action to find and punish the perpetrators of what seemed like horrendous crimes and for some people in the judicial system, it seemed like getting convictions took precedence over finding out the truth. Many of those day care providers’ lives were completely ruined. What is worse is that it also likely scarred for life the children involved as well and made prosecution of actual cases of abuse harder to distinguish and prosecute from those that were the result of over-zealous police and prosecutors.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this awful period, it is that it is at times of mass fear and hysteria that we need to be especially careful of not being stampeded into taking intemperate actions, as happened with the war on terror following 9/11 and with the war on drugs.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Sounds a lot like the “Russian Hysteria” or “Iranian Mania” now attacking the USA.

    We can only hope the USA is a bit more sensible today. And I am not hopeful.

    I can remember a colleague pointing out at the time that two or three million bodies would be hard to hide. He was a bit cynical.

  2. keithb says

    Seems to me that a Gorilla with its arm ripped off would be an easy thing to check.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yet some people mock our only president for warning us against “witch hunts”!!1!

  4. flex says

    This looks like a good time to plug one of my favorite books:

    Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
    Written in 1841 and available for free at many places on-line these days.

    The book discusses mass popular movements, like Tulip Mania, the Mississippi Bubble and my favorite; the South Sea Bubble.

    It was comparing the descriptions of companies floated during the South Sea Bubble with the more recent Internet Bubble which convinced me to pull out of the stock market in 1998. I probably could have waiting another year or two (and I didn’t make a killing, only a small profit), but because of MacKay I could see the signs that a crash was coming, but I just couldn’t know when.

    The rest of the book isn’t as interesting. The 100+ pages of biographies of medieval alchemists probably can be skipped.

    The criticisms of the book; about how it out-of-date, or reflects the prejudices of MacKay, are generally valid. But I find these to be minor faults. Ultimately, the fact that it details rumor, popular miss-conceptions, and irrational beliefs from 200-300 years ago, and was written more than 150 years ago, provides what I think is a valuable insight into the way a social animal operates in it’s environment (whilst acknowledging that I’m one of them).

  5. lanir says

    I have a friend who describes being abused at a daycare around that time along with other children including siblings. Because of this mess I have no idea what to really think about it other than to try to be understanding. Because if he’s still mentioning it this far away from the time it happened it’s obviously affected him, whether he was abused by daycare staff touching him or by other adults exposing him to these ugly concepts at a young age.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    I have no idea what to really think about it

    As I understand it, the only currently acceptable course of action is to believe and support anyone who alleges such victimisation, regardless of how implausible their claims might sound.

    Consider the two options open to you:
    1. believe and support the accuser.
    2. treat any such allegation with reasonable scepticism until some evidence is presented (evidence, that is, beyond the allegation, which remember IS evidence).

    If you do (2), you risk traumatising and further victimising someone who has been treated horribly, and in addition being ostracised from right-thinking society.
    If you do (1), both the alleged victim AND you are perfectly safe. The possibility you may be indulging a fantasist in their lies is an acceptable risk, given how vanishingly rare false accusations and unjustified convictions are. Right?

  7. lanir says

    I understand the point and I do try to support my friend. Perhaps I should have said I’m not sure what to think about it to myself. I don’t think supporting a friend and internalizing beliefs they have which might be misperceptions are necessarily the same thing. I think I can do the first without doing the second.

  8. Mano Singham says


    I agree. It is a tricky business. In such situations, lending a sympathetic ear seems to be the best option.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *